A very ordinary homicide in the extraordinary ‘autumn of terror’

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We have spent the past few days in Whitechapel, looking at the cases selected for reporting at Worship Street Police court before Mr Montagu Williams. On Tuesday there was an illegal boxing match, yesterday an example of an over officious vestryman being brought to book. Today’s case received far fewer column inches but was much more serious than either, because it involved a homicide.

In the autumn of 1888 murder was on everybody’s mind; an unknown assassin had already struck several times in the district and the police were no nearer to catching him. ‘Jack the Ripper’ would kill again that year but for the time being the streets of Whitechapel were relatively quiet.

Serial and stranger murder – the sort the ‘Ripper’ indulged in was (and is) relatively rare. It was (and is) much more common for homicide victims to know their killer. This was the case with Mrs Roberts (we don’t know her first name) who died on the 18 October 1888.

She lived were her husband Joseph, a boot fitter, at Essex Place on the Hackney Road and the pair had a tempestuous relationship. On the 8 October she was drunk and so was Joe and the couple had a furious row in front of one of their children. The little girl told Mr Williams that she’d seen her mother aim a blow at her father as they quarreled in the street. Joe had fallen backwards but regained his feet and retaliated.

The boot fitter, much stronger and heavier than his wife, struck her hard on the head. She fell down senseless and never made a full recovery, dying ten days later. Other witnesses testified that there ‘was an utter absence of intentional violence’. Moreover, the medical evidence suggested that she had died from peritonitis, so not something directly related to the fight that the victim had started herself.

Joseph Roberts was discharged but told he would have to face trial on the coroner’s warrant. On 22 October Joe stood trial at the Old Bailey but since the prosecution offered no evidence against him he walked away a free man. He’d not meant to kill his wife and quite probably he regretted it but his actions would now mean his daughter and her siblings would be without a mother. Sadly, this was an all too familiar story in the Victorian capital.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 24, 1888]

‘A Mysterious tragedy in London’, as Martha Tabram’s murder sets off the hunt for ‘Jack the Ripper’.

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“Mysterious tragedy in London”.

This is how one regional English paper reported the death of a woman in East London in early August 1888.  At that point they didn’t know that this was about to become the story of 1888 and one of the most notorious crime stories of this or any other age.

The Sheffield paper described how John Reeves was on his way to work, descending the stairs from his room in George Yard Buildings in what is now Gunthorpe Street, Whitechapel, when he came across the body of a woman. She was lying in a pool of blood and Reeves rushed off in search of a policeman. PC Barrett (26H) quickly found a doctor who examined the woman in situe.

Dr Keeling ‘pronounced life extinct, and gave it as his opinion that she had been brutally murdered, there being knife wounds on her breast, stomach and abdomen’. It was hardly a contentious conclusion to draw, the poor woman had been stabbed 49 times and only one of those blows (to the area close to her heart would have been needed to kill her.

The paper reported that the victim was ‘unknown to any of the occupants of the tenements on the landing of which’ she was found, and no one had heard ‘any disturbance’ that night. A killer had apparently struck and killed with extreme violence without anyone seeing or hearing anything.

The murder had, the paper continued, been placed in the capable hands of Inspector Reid of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), who was now ‘conducting inquiries’.  So far these inquiries had not resulted in any clues being found but that didn’t stop the press from speculating. There were dark muttering about the type of wounds that the unknown woman had suffered, some of which were described as ‘frightful’, one described as being of ‘ almost revolting nature’.

While the identity of the victim was just as much as a mystery as her assailant the papers did agree that she was ‘undoubtedly an abandoned female’. By this they meant that she was a prostitute and so speculated that her client might have killed her. Moreover it was stated that her wounds were ‘probably inflicted by a bayonet’ and so the search was soon on for one of the several soldiers seen drinking near the scene of the crime earlier that night.

The woman was Martha Tabram (or Turner) and although DI Reid followed up the soldier angle it was soon clear that no squaddie was responsible for Martha’s murder. While her death has previously been only loosely linked to the series of killings history has called the Whitechapel Murders I think we can now be fairly sure was among the first of ‘Jack the Ripper’s victims. Killers MOs develop over time and adapt to circumstance (the Zodiac killer in California in the 1960s is a good example of this) and so while Martha’s throat was not cut they are similarities in respect of the other murders in 1888-91.

I believe Martha Tabram was actually the third person that the serial killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered, the first being over a year earlier in May 1887. Along with my co-research Andrew Wise we have set out our arguments for drawing link between the Whitechapel murders and another set of unsolved homicide (the Thames Torso mystery) which occurred at the same time. While London might have had two serial killers operating at exactly the same time we think it is unlikely and we believe we might have uncovered a possible suspect to hold responsible. Obviously proving someone is guilty after 130 plus years has passed is all but impossible and so we offer our suspect as a possible killer, not the killer.

The pursuit of Jack the Ripper has become a parlour game which anyone can play and we are not so arrogant as to believe that solving it is easy or straightforward. We’ve presented our case in our new book – Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper? (published by Amberley this summer) – give it a look if you are interested in finding out more about the case, our suspect, and late Victorian London. It is available in all good bookshops and online.

[from Evening Telegraph and Star and Sheffield Daily Times, Wednesday, August 8, 1888]